If you're anything like me, you love the thrill of purchasing a car. Whether I’m buying a $900 used Volvo or a brand new car right off the lot, the feeling is the same. What makes the experience even better? When you can work a trip into the mix.
My previous vehicle, a used 2009 Porsche Cayenne S, was beautiful, and with the maintenance I performed on it, it was quite reliable as well. So, you may ask, why get rid of it? The reason is twofold. First, there was the looming dread of a major mechanical nightmare, all speculative, of course. Second, some job shuffling meant that one less car payment would go a long way in the current climate. So it was settled: I listed the Porsche, found a new owner, tossed them the keys, and began the hunt.
Having a bit of history with Audi made the marque an easy choice. My goal was to find something that could fulfill the luxury-come-sporty need I had with most of my previous vehicles, but it also needed to be (relatively) easy on the bank account. I already have a fun second car, so I didn’t need anything too performance-oriented, but even still, that kind of feature would be nice. After some back and forth, which in all likelihood, probably made it look as though I was stricken with the worst form of mania, I settled on a 2006 Audi A8 L (the long-wheelbase version). On paper, my vehicle of choice was a downgrade, but it checked every box that the Cayenne did, apart from towing capacity and ground clearance.
Purchasing a used car is a risk: once you exchange money and drive away, all conceivable issues become your problem; buying a used car from out of state magnifies that risk. On top of that, buying a used, German luxury "saloon" from out of state without test driving is so risky it's laughable. It’s something that should be contemplated only by the trained professional or utter lunatic (I like to think of myself as a bit of both). Taking such a risk is also a rush, and it's just the thing for a soul longing for adventure. And in case you think I entered this situation a foolhardy car nut, know that I researched the model quite a bit to understand the known common issues and costs involved to correct them. Once I found this car, I did a VIN check to ensure nothing nefarious about the previous owner's claims.
I don't waste time when car shopping. In this instance, it was six days from when I first contacted the seller to when I was flying out with the money and a halo of youthful exuberance. The flights went smoothly, as did the rideshare and hotel. It was the next morning when I was due to see the car for the first time that my luck changed course. The previous owner pulled up to the hotel and the car was covered in snow. That was the first whiff of a red flag. The empty gas tank was another. Otherwise, the car was as expected. We took a little drive and talked about the previous owner's history with the car. Everything seemed to be in order, so I drove back to the hotel, where we went inside and signed over the title and bill of sale, exchanged the final portion of the payment, and shook hands. It was after the deal had been done that things took a nose-dive.
As I was merging onto the highway to bring him back to his house, I heard it: the tell-tale hum of a wheel bearing starting to show indications of failure. I, being the helpful mechanic I am, brought it to the attention of the previous owner. Pointing out how it changed pitch or disappeared depending on which direction you were turning. His reply? A shrug. To his credit, maybe he didn't know. Maybe to him, this was just a fifteen-year-old appliance that makes all sorts of beeps and boops. A modern vehicle is a wickedly complicated thing, after all. Alas, the deal was done, and I could tell there was no way I would be able to get any of that green stuff back.
The Ride Home
The rest of the morning was spent meeting a couple of business contacts in the area and doing a lot of soul searching. Did I want to find a shop somewhere or a parking lot to complete the wheel bearing repair myself? I had brought some tools so success was technically possible. After lunch with a friend who was also in the automotive industry, we concluded that the chances of making it home in one piece were slightly greater than being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a seized wheel. But hey, I had an emergency plan (I’m a AAA Plus member of nearly twenty years).
I filled the gas tank and hit the road. Each mile brought a notch on my belt and an additional stressful straw onto this camel's back. High speeds mean more friction and friction is the enemy of any wheel bearing, so I set the cruise control to 10mph under the limit. The wheel bearing was quiet enough that with the right choice of music it could almost be disregarded. However, each pitstop brought the idea of an imminent failure to the forefront of my mind. The increase of the bearing noise heightened moment by moment, but 1,250 miles later, driving up the street toward my house, it was absolutely howling at the midnight moon. I imagined flames and sparks shooting forth, leaving a deeply burned trail, but to my surprise, no such thing happened.